TOMS RIVER-Which political party will seize control the Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education in 2018? That’s the question voters in Toms River, unfortunately, must ask themselves in just a few weeks where big-stakes and big-money politics are once again in the forefront of the Toms River School District.
How the Ritacco Scandal Ushered in the Democrats
The district which has been besieged in recent years by the Michael Ritacco scandal and Superstorm Sandy is now under attack from another more destructive force…New Jersey’s powerful political machines.
Up for grabs will be the district’s taxpayer-funded $225 million school budget and all of the professional contracts and job awards that go along with it.
Currently, the Toms River School Board is controlled by five “Clean Slate” Democrats who took control of the board of education in the aftermath of the Michael Ritacco bribery and corruption scandal which led to the eventual resignation and sentencing of the embattled superintendent to 11 years in prison.
Democrats and Republicans Battle for the Bucks
At the time, the board was in the hands of Republicans, but Democrats, under the guise of the “Clean Slate” platform seized upon the opportunity to flip the board, carrying the battle flag of anti-corruption.
Now, the allure of the Clean Slate team is beginning to wear off as former allies have abandoned the ticket, running this year against the ticket.
The remaining board members outside of the Clean Slate include three backed by the Ocean County Republican establishment, Daniel Leonard, Christopher Raimann and Joe Nardini. One board member, Robert Onofrietti, is running for re-election without the financial backing of one of the two political parties. Onofrietti, a registered Republican has announced this year that he has split from the Clean Slate team.
Democrat Control Slipping
Five years after the Ritacco scandal, the Clean Slate team has lost ground as Republicans have chipped away at the team that for the most part, hasn’t quite delivered on their campaign promises to the taxpayers in their short tenure of control in the district.
The anti-Ritacco platform has expired and now, taxpayers, teachers, and parents are demanding real results from their school board.
This year’s election could be a decisive one that returns the power back into the hands of the Ritacco era power brokers.
Who’s who in the 2017 Toms River School Board election?
Candidates backed by New Jersey Democrats:
Michael Horgan, Stephen J. Kaczala, Michelle Williams
Candidates backed by New Jersey Republicans:
Teri Kubiel, Al Schwartz, Ginny Rhine
Candidates running independent campaigns:
Robert Onofrietti, Jr.
The Democrat ticket of Michael Horgan, Stephen J. Kaczala, and Michelle Williams consists of political newcomers, handpicked by the powerbrokers that fund the Clean Slate Democrat machine, based out of Toms River and managed by a consulting firm out Toms River, Clearedge Political Consulting, a political consulting firm that routinely manages campaigns for shore area Democrats, led by Democrat operative Mitch Seim.
The Republican ticket consists of Teri Kubiel, wife of Toms River Township Councilman Brian Kubiel, Al Schwartz and Ginny Rhine. If Kubiel wins, it could create the town’s first “Royal Family”, where a husband and wife team will have seats on the two major governing bodies in town. Brian Kubiel also serves as an administrator of the Toms River Fire Department.
The Three Paths for Education’s Future in Toms River
In the event that either Democrats or Republicans win more than one seat on the board this year, that party will retain control of the board.
If the non-backed candidate Onofrieti wins along with one Democrat and one Republican, the board will be balanced 50% Democrat, 50% Republican and one independent board member, which could bring political balance to the district for the first time in decades.
Politics and Education
Despite being a non-partisan board, the Toms River School Board has been anything but non-partisan for many years. Each year, Democrats and Republicans sink tens of thousands of dollars into campaigns, vying for control of a budget that is now nearly a quarter of a billion dollars annually.
Controlling the local school board is a more lucrative venture for Democrats and Republicans than the municipal council races. The Toms River Township budget is a mere $125 million annually, nearly half of the dollars up for grabs by the school board.
The party which controls the board also controls the money. Political appointments will be made, professional contracts will be awarded, typically to campaign donors and politically aligned professional firms.
With that amount of money on the table, both sides do what they can do. This year, when the defacto leader and vocal mouthpiece of the Republican slate, Daniel Leonard and his fellow Republicans were caught trying to push a contract to one of Leonard’s cmapaign donors, it forced the nine-member board to award the contract to a higher bidder, costing the district tens of thousands of extra dollars to avoid any claims of corruption or impropriety. Should Leonard’s preffered slate win, it would empower the Beachwood resident to push contracts to campaign donors without being challenged in the future.
Civil War is Not Just North Vs. South, Dems vs. Republicans
This year, Republican matriarch Leonard has been particularly active on social media, desperately calling for support of Rhine, Schwartz and Kubiel. With their victory, Leonard knows there would be no checks and balances for future political contract awards, so he publicly and shamelessly tows the party line into the waters of public education. The Clean-Slate team would be replaced with the “Blank Check” team.
The Democrats are also guilty of political interference on the board. Shortly after retaining control, the board appointed Democrat powerbroker attorney Stephan Leone to the position of school board attorney and awarded political patronage contracts of their own. After all, the Democrat power on the Toms River School board runs deep with money funneled in from the state’s powerful North Jersey based Democrat political machine. When the Clean Slate team came to power in neighboring Brick Township last year, dozens of school district employees were fired and replaced with politcal allies of the Clean Slate team.
Which way will the vote go?
In a nutshell, voters have to decide this year, which of the two political parties will control education in their town, Democrats or Republicans. They will also have a unique opportunity where the board can be split equally between power backed Republicans and Democrats. If Onofrietti wins, the lone independent caught in the DMZ, between two feuding factions in this year’s battle for control of the district, the two political parties would be split 4-4. Onofrietti’s vote would serve as a tie-breaker for all partisan disputes, something neither Democrats nor Republicans would like to see.
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